Diwali marks Ram’s return to Ayodhya, victorious from the battle with Ravan. Ahead of the festival this year, we look at the many versions of the epic, which has shaped our culture, arts and politics. It is a splendidly various tradition, from the rationalism of the Jain Ramayana to the humour of the Mapilla Ramayanam. It is both a political ideal and a deeply personal experience. It is the mega-story that contains a multitude of narratives of India
Every place that is said to have been blessed by the presence of Ram finds its place in the pilgrimage circuit in India. It’s quite a long list — beginning in Ayodhya where Ram was born, then passing through Chitrakoot in central India, Nashik in Maharashtra, Karnataka’s Hampi region (believed to be the kingdom of Kishkindha) and ending at Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. Strangely enough, Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana, rarely mentions these places by name. For instance, Rameswaram is just referred to as “the sea”.
Pilgrimages are a part of the Indian economy — the largest group of tourists within India are pilgrims. Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata have always been a part of the Indian consciousness. We know the stories from these texts nearly by heart, and films and television have kept them alive.
Across the country, there are thousands of temples that claim that Ram and Sita had passed through — one book lists as many as 249 places. At any rate, it makes great business sense for the priests. They claim that Ram had a bath here, or he halted there. But the important ones that are connected to Valmiki’s Ramayana include Ayodhya, Balia, Buxar, Vaishali, Madhubani, Janakpur (Nepal), Sitamarhi, Chitrakoot, Nashik, Raipur, Hampi, Ramanathapuram and Rameswaram. And while nothing is historically verifiable, faith and tradition have kept this trail alive.
Recently, I conceptualised a two-day Ramayana trail in Rameswaram for a chain of hotels. It takes off on the “Footsteps of Lord Rama”, a trail that began in 2011 and is increasingly popular with tourists. Since Ram is believed to have stayed at Rameswaram for a while as he planned the invasion of Lanka, the route takes you to Devipattinam, where he worshipped Durga. Then one proceeds to Tirupullani, where he worshipped Vishnu. From there, to Dhanushkoti, where he built the bridge and, of course, the main Ramanatha Swamy temple, a great southern shrine where after the battle, Ram performed the anteyishti yagya, or a yagya of atonement for killing Ravan, since the latter was a Brahmin.
Next only to Ayodhya, Rameswaram has the largest number of pilgrim sites that can be directly connected to the story that Valmiki wrote. For the faithful, the spirit of this warrior prince still roams there.
The story was originally published with the headline In His Footsteps
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